…and DC Comics have waded into the middle of it. The sides of this conflict are Barnes and Noble, the book chain that is under increasing pressure to perform after the closure of Borders, threatened by the rise of online sales and the e-book; and Amazon. Both companies have tablet devices in the market, the Nook and the Kindle Fire respectively. Fevered competition for control of the market between the two is to be expected. What came as a surprise however was DC signing an exclusivity deal with Amazon.
As a result physical copies of books such as Watchmen, Sandman and recent Harvey award-winner Daytripper have been pulled from the shelves of Barnes and Noble. No doubt this is intended as a protest action against the perceived slight by DC towards the retailer. Tablet devices represent the latest frontier in consumer media devices. Comic companies are still unsure as to how they can make inroads in this digital market and balance their traditional publishing model, so DC’s strategy could set a dangerous precedent for Barnes and Noble. While comic stores depend on the direct market, catering to an ever-decreasing audience, book store chains have become recognized for their ability to attract new readers thanks to a well-stocked ‘graphic novel’ section. The casual browser in a book shop stopping to have a flick through the pages of Maus or the latest Batman trade is a far more valuable prospect than the tribal fanboy, whose tastes are shall we say more defined (“Liefield sucks!”).
Therefore the apparent desperation of Barnes and Noble’s decision is somewhat more understandable given their accessibility to curious punters inspired to read a comic after seeing The Dark Knight or Iron Man 2. They are in a position to make some noise – their product is not exclusively comics. Compare this situation to the struggling comic book retailer being frozen out by online sales and the prospect of an increasingly digital facing comic market. Still the Barnes and Noble move is quite bizarre – Neil Gaiman gave an interview to the Washington Post describing it as “a ridiculous overreaction” – but in these desperate times for retailers, perhaps desperate measures are called for.
No, the really questionable decision is DC’s ‘exclusivity’ deal. Signing artists and writers to work solely with the company is one thing – a practice that is increasingly common among the Big Two in order to control the talent pool that exists in the American comic industry – but to lockdown a single tablet device seems short-sighted. We have already seen that the direct market itself, while having made initial gains for the industry that was struggling in the eighties, ultimately proved detrimental in the long-term. It is an arrangement that leaves the retailer entirely dependent on the publishers e.g. returns policy on unsold issues, or Diamond’s boycott of Alan Moore’s The Black Dossier. The comic industry as a whole seems unable to take the important lesson from this experience and develop strategies to broaden its market base. Snubbing a retailer like Barnes and Noble, not to mention any other companies not named ‘Amazon,’ once again speaks to an urge on the part of DC to exert as much control over a shrinking market as possible. Instead of allowing the digital expansion of comics to reinvigorate reader base, the move indicates an insistence on establishing a monopoly.
Such an approach threatens to strangle this potential new vector for the propagation of comics before it has had a proper chance to develop. It is time for the personalities involved to ask themselves what kind of industry do they envision continuing forward? What do they want to preside over?
It is tempting to imagine DC seeing itself as Moses coming down from the mount, Kindle Fire tablet in hand, looking to tell the faithful below the rules of this new market. It would be a shame if they discovered no one was willing to listen to them anymore.
Query for readers and Bible study attendees. In this analogy, is digital piracy the Golden Calf? This may have gotten away from me.